Is Bibi bluffing on borders?

Leaks from unnamed aides to Benjamin Netanyahu claim he has shifted positions on another critical peace process issue –borders—but so far there’s no official confirmation.  It appears to be a tactical move to derail the Palestinian strategy for a UN statehood resolution next month, and it could work if the Israeli leader can convince Mahmoud Abbas that he is serious.

But there’s the rub.  He has a serious credibility problem, not just with Abbas but with Barack Obama, most foreign leaders and now hundreds of thousands of Israelis.

They don’t know what he has in mind.  Privately his aides have been in touch with Obama administration officials and representatives of the Mideast Quartet headed by Tony Blair, who also searching for a formula to convince Abbas to drop his UN gambit.

Netanyahu is demanding a quid pro quo, aides are telling Israeli media.  He will acknowledge the 1967 Green Line as the reference point for negotiations of future borders if the Palestinians will agree to ultimately recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

That is something Abbas has long opposed but must do if he is to convince Israelis that negotiations will lead to a final status agreement that will end the conflict and all Arab claims against Israel.

While Abbas appears determined to go ahead with his Sept 20 target for asking for UN recognition, he faces opposition from senior Palestinian figures, including his own prime minister, who feel he is risking critical relations with the Obama administration and the Congress in exchange for a feel good moment that will make no substantive changes on the ground.

There is less to Netanyahu’s “concession” than meets the eye.  The Green Line has been the reference point —not a final target—for negotiations since UN Security Council Resolution 242 was passed following the 1967 war, and it has been U.S. policy ever since.  It was also acknowledged by previous Israeli prime ministers, including Ehud Barak, Netanyahu’s present defense minister, more than a decade ago.

When President Obama reiterated that policy in May during an Oval Office meeting, Netanyahu deliberately distorted what the president had said and rudely lectured him about defensible borders.  Obama never called for a return to the 67 lines, as Netanyahu implied, only that they be a reference point and that there be mutual land swaps.  That is the same as the approach of George W. Bush, according to Bush’s national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, and Netanyahu knew it.

But Netanyahu’s performance – not unintentionally—ignited a firestorm of attacks on Obama as trying to force Israel to “retreat” behind “Auschwitz borders.”  That may have temporarily boosted Netanyahu’s poll numbers at home and encouraged anti-Obama attacks here, but it was another body blow to the prime minister’s stature and credibility internationally.

Palestinians latched on to the incident as an opportunity to side with the Americans against Netanyahu by demanding that he accept the Obama formula, which is what the PM’s aides now tell reporters aides he is finally ready to do.  But will the Palestinians take yes for an answer?

Abbas’ chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, reportedly told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that if Netanyahu accepts the Obama formula Abbas would be ready to resume negotiations.

But don’t be surprised if he reneges on that and renews his longstanding demand that Israel freeze all construction beyond the 67 lines, including in East Jerusalem, where the Netanyahu government just gave the go-ahead to build hundreds of new homes.

Some on the Jewish far right who routinely accuse Israel’s Jewish critics of meddling where they don’t belong suddenly made an about-face and began lecturing Netanyahu about his “strategic error” and “dangerous concession.”  Accepting the 1967 border reference point, said one perennially angry voice, is “the last thing Israel should be doing.”

Netanyahu has shown a proclivity for exhausting all the alternatives before making difficult ideological decisions.  He had opposed the Oslo Accords, the land-for-peace principle, the two-state solution, a settlement freeze and the border formula.  By the time he came around, grudgingly, he had squandered any goodwill he might have gained.  People remembered his “no, no, no,” and that overshadowed his “yes.”

Abbas should quickly take up Netanyahu’s offer to go to Ramallah for negotiations, but I see no evidence that the Palestinian leader is serious about resuming talks.  If he were, he could have done it long ago instead of embarking on his inflammatory UN strategy, complete with planned demonstrations, that is raising false hopes and could too easily erupt in violence.

Both leaders should remember President Kennedy’s successful strategy in the 1962 Cuban missile crises.  JFK ignored the things Nikita Khrushchev said that he didn’t like and embraced those he did.  Netanyahu has given Abbas an opportunity to declare victory – accept the offer to make the Green Line a reference point, cancel his UN application and invite Netanyahu to Ramallah.  Opportunity is knocking.  Does he have the courage to open the door?

Then we’ll find out who is serious and who is bluffing.